Prummer defines scrupulosity as “a state of groundless fear rather than the judgment of a sound mind” (no. 144). He identifies the signs of scruples: an excessive anxiety about previous confessions, protracted accusations of irrelevant details, stubbornness that refuses to accept the decisions of the confessor. Scruples affect a soul devoted to God and sensitive to offending Him. Take heart, brother: many saints have struggled as you do.
But know the truth: scrupulosity is the trick of the Devil, who takes your sin and casts fear into your heart. He says you are unforgivable, or that you are such a sinner that you are beyond God’s mercy. Thus, it is often tied with the sin of despair, which is a sin against hope. He even causes you to feel a pleasure, causing you to think this is virtuous. But this is pride.
Why is it pride? Because the tribunal of God says, “I absolve you from your sins.” But you refuse the tribunal of God. You are imagining a tribunal that is higher than God. Who are you to judge God’s own judgment of you? “Be you humbled under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet. 6) — both in His punishments and His mercies. Do not pridefully exalt yourself above Almighty God. You are not above or beyond God’s mercy, for God’s mercy has been applied to you. Our Lord Jesus shed His Precious Blood to merit for you this mercy. Do not scorn His sufferings on the pretense that you are unworthy. Yes, you are unworthy. But God has made you worthy by the Blood of Jesus Christ.
Scrupulosity Is Trusting in Self and Not in God
As Scupoli says, the foundation of the spiritual life is distrust of self and trust in God (Spiritual Combat). Scrupulosity uses pride to reverse this. It pridefully refuses God’s mercy and causes a soul to trust more in its own thoughts and deliberations than in the power and mercy of God. Besides the pride regarding confession, scrupulosity also manifests itself in a paralyzing anxiety about sin. Scruples causes a man to agonize over the question: did I sin? Was this a sin? Am I sinning?
Stop trusting in yourself. Get out of your head. You are trusting in yourself to know the answer. Instead, follow this strictly and shun every other anxiety:
- Ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten you with this prayer: Come Holy Spirit, enlighten my mind, that I may know the sins that I have committed either by thought, word or deed, and give me the grace of true contrition.
- Think as objectively as possible: did I sin? If necessary, ask a trusted friend. A good, objective guide is Prummer. Do not take more than five minutes on this. Set a timer if you need to.
- Now be silent before God and truly listen. Do not take more than two minutes on this. God will show you the sin, or He will be silent.
- If you have sinned, immediately use this as an occasion for humility (see below). If He is silent, trust in Him.
This method is based on trusting in God’s mercy. God “will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4), and again, “every one that shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Joel 2:32). Trust in these promises from God. If He is silent, trust that you have not sinned, and continue as before. If you have sinned, He will show you, because He desires your salvation.
Use Every Fall for Humility, Not Pride
If you have fallen into sin, the demons will rush at you to cast fear and anxiety into your heart. Instead of succumbing to their pride and despair, humble yourself. Recognize your utter dependence upon God’s grace to overcome this, and pray, in the words of Scupoli:
WHEN YOU REALIZE that you have been wounded by sin, whether through weakness or malice, do not lose your courage or become panic-stricken. Turn to God with a great and humble confidence saying: “See, O Master, what I am able to do. When I rely on my own strength, I commit nothing but sins.”
Meditating on this, recognize the extent of your humiliation and express to our Lord your sorrow for the offense committed. With an unperturbed heart, indict your vicious passions, especially the one that has occasioned your fall, and confess: “O Lord, I would not have stopped at this had not Your goodness restrained me.”
Give thanks to God, and more than ever give to Him the complete love of your heart. What generosity on His part! You have offended Him, and, despite this, He extends His hand to prevent another fall (Spiritual Combat, ch. 26).
The Enemy wishes to make you fall, and then by scrupulosity to increase your pride and blindness and reliance on yourself. Reject his machinations. If you fall, use the occasion for a greater humility and greater dependence upon God. Your sin was caused by trusting in yourself. Turn your trust away from yourself, therefore, and trust in God. You must thank God that He has prevented a greater fall. Maintain your peace, and run to confession.
Despair is a Sin against Hope
St. Thomas defines despair as a sin against hope. Despair is “conforming our mind to a false opinion about God” (ST II q10 a1). Another name for a false opinion about God is a heresy. What is this false opinion? It is that God will refuse pardon to the repentant sinner. On the contrary, St. Thomas quotes Ez. 18:23: “I desire not the death of the sinner, but that he should be converted, and live.”
Therefore, you must ask God to strengthen the virtue of hope within you. Shun despair by praying the Act of Hope until you believe these words through and through: “O God, relying on Thy almighty promises and the infinite merits of Christ, I hope to obtain remission of my sins and everlasting happiness with Thee. In this hope I intend to live and die.”
Fear and anxiety are from the demons. Peace is from union with God.
It vital to understand that God does not cast paralyzing fear or anxiety into your heart. This is the work of demons. This fear causes you to focus on yourself and trust in your own wisdom. True fear of Lord is the beginning of true wisdom because it brings forth humility. Humility causes a man to focus on God and distrust Himself. Therefore, reject all paralyzing fear and anxiety as from the demons. Utilize sacramentals and trust in God’s power and not your own. Realize that anxiety is evidence of attachment to creatures, and renounce all attachments and love suffering. Know that peace is the fruit of charity, which is union with God (ST II-II q29 a3). Strive with all your energy to maintain your peace, because this means maintaining your union with God. Peace will come after much suffering. “Cast thy care upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall not suffer the just to waver for ever” (Ps. 54:23).
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.